Oxbridge – the popular coinage for the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are the two most prestigious universities in the UK. Cambridge is the younger of the duo but the more funded and it was there that Prince Charles, the heir apparent to the English throne who was the first monarch to be educated outside the palace studied history. His younger brother, Prince Edward also studied history there as well. It has produced the second highest number of British Prime Ministers after Oxford.

Despite its long-standing tradition and intimidating pedigree which saw former world’s richest man, Bill Gates cite a highly prestigious scholarship scheme there, a scandal is currently brewing in the ancient citadel of learning as five students of the institution have died since March this year – one suicide and four others suspected to be suicide cases.

According to the BBC, Prior to the deaths, a review of the university’s mental health services found there were “likely to be significant inefficiencies”.

The university said it had “embarked on a significant programme of change”.

It is not known whether the students who died had used the university’s mental health services.

The BBC has also been contacted by about a dozen current and former students with experience of those services, whose concerns include the “fitness to study” procedure, which can be initiated after somebody tries to kill themselves.

Students said none of the procedure’s panel deciding upon their future studies were mental health specialists, with one student stating they “felt like probation hearings, like I was on trial, talking to complete strangers about stuff I hadn’t properly unpacked with a therapist yet”.

A former student said her overall experience of mental health support left her with the impression that “as far as college were concerned, if I were to die they wanted it to be not on their property”.

“It seemed that no steps were taken to actually look after me, the steps that were taken were to protect the reputation of the college and their liability in case anything were to happen,” she said.

Head of student wellbeing, Natalie Acton, told the BBC the university commissioned a “strategic review” into mental health provision “because we wanted to be really confident that what we were doing was the best we could possibly do for our students”.

A draft final report by external reviewer SUMS Consulting, from September, found that the “current approach is uncoordinated and there is no clarity of purpose or definition of the university’s role, aims or limits in its support for student mental health and wellbeing”.

Its findings included:

  • Increasing staff and student dissatisfaction with the system, “evidenced by the findings from multiple reviews over the past few years, including this one”
  • The absence of both a university-wide suicide prevention and response strategy and a central out-of-hours crisis service were “pressing” areas highlighted in previous reviews
  • The lack of a crisis service “carries significant risk to the university, including of increased incidence of student suicide and near-misses”
  • “Inadequate” data collection and information sharing, with support being “delivered in silos”

More students are accessing Cambridge University’s mental health services

The university spends £4.5m a year on mental health services, and the review found it was one “of the biggest spenders on student mental health and wellbeing support in the sector”.

“Costs are high and, without a clear plan, will continue to spiral given the projected continuing increase in mental health problems in young people and consequent increase in student demand for support,” the draft report said.

The review said there were “wide variations” of support levels between the university’s 31 colleges, and that “senior tutors, tutors and other college staff with a welfare role are overstretched and are dealing with often significant issues and a high level of demand and risk”.

A student told the BBC that while they felt supported within their own college, “it just isn’t fair that it’s been available for me when it hasn’t been for other students at other colleges within the same university”.

If students self-refer to the University Counselling Service they are seen for up to four sessions then either discharged, directed to group therapy or encouraged to use a charity fund for longer-term therapy.

“However, this is ineffective as many students ‘bounce back’ to UCS (33%) or (anecdotally) move around different sources of provision offered across collegiate university,” the review said.

The review said there was “increasing levels of staff and student dissatisfaction with the current system”

The review found there needed to be a “more cost-effective alternative response to simply providing students with one-to-one counselling” either through UCS or in-house college provision.

“This current approach is ineffective and unsustainable given the forecast increases in levels of need for support and the corresponding growth in costs (and the need for some limit to costs).

“This current approach does not discern between varying levels of student need, is untargeted and is unsustainable.”

Natalie Acton said the university had seen “unprecedented” increases in students coming to Cambridge with mental health problems

In response to the findings of the review, Ms Acton told the BBC: “We have seen unprecedented increases in the numbers of students coming to Cambridge with mental health problems and the numbers accessing our services once they get here, and we really encourage students to come forward.

“We now have a significant programme of reform across the colleges and university to make sure we’re doing everything we possibly can, but that’s a journey. It’s a journey that our students are very much engaged with and we constantly consult our students on this.”

She said as a result of the review they wanted to “make sure that for every student there is a minimum base line of support they can access”.

“In colleges that will include each having an academic who can support them in terms of their wellbeing but they will also have a wellbeing practitioner who will be able to work with them to prevent mental health problems becoming difficult,” she said.

Ms Acton added they were developing training for staff across the university, having a “much stronger relationship” with the local NHS and from October will have an out-of-hours support line to enable staff supporting students in crisis to contact mental health professionals.

This report if found to be true is highly embarrassing and a stain on the reputation of Cambridge. The authorities there need to urgently clean the Augean Stable so that the educational institution would maintain its tradition of being a highly desirable place to learn and acquire knowledge.

The regulatory authority in the UK should also urgently step in and stem the tide of this ugly tide if found to be positive so as to avert further disasters.

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2 thoughts on “University of Cambridge’s mental health service inept – Report by Tony Ademiluyi

  1. Great thanks for taking the time to do this meticulous report and for sharing it here.

    It gives insight into the multifaceted roles of a university.

    I hope the report will also look into why so many students have these mental health issues in the first place.

    My exposure to Cambridge through a student there some years ago also suggests to me they may have a challenge with empathy with students.

    They might need to modify how they correlate the promotion of excellence with the individual learning and psychological needs of students.

    Intellectual powers are great but they need to be correlated with social and emotional intelligence.

    Most people would be puzzled about why students of a super elite institution would commit suicide.

    Its inspiring reading the lucid description of the progress made by some colleges and the inadequacies of other colleges while highlighting the efforts made to address the challenge from a systemic perspective that ideally creates a university wide standard of rules, procedures and attitudes that will be a benchmark moving forward.

    Cambridge is the equivalent of a number universities in one, given their system of self governing collages, their scope of institutions and their range of activity. Achieving uniformity of standards in all educational sectors across such diversity would be a wonderful achivement.

    I wonder what the quality of mental health services in other UK universities and even across the world is?

    I had a very good experience in that regard with the University of Kent in 2003 in the context of very good student care, in trying to cope with disruptions sufferred in connection with moving to the UK.

    My lecturer at the University of Benin, Dr. Virginia Ola, played a superb, unofficial role as a counsellor for me when I did my BA there. She helped me adjust to entering a system where I would rather not be, preferring self education, but a system in which I had found mysef through family and social pressures, but a system which eventually came to underlie my intellectual growth.

    Kent, combining rigour with flexibility, high standards with sensitivity to the individual, economic provision without harassing students to pay up, and general quality student care, is my best academic experience so far across Nigeria and the UK, although Kent then was nowhere near the range of extra-curricular intellectual activity provided by UCL and SOAS when I was there from 2004, which in themselves were not near the extra-curricular intellectual scope of Cambridge as I experienced it some years later even as a vistor.



    1. Hello Toyin! Thank you for your detailed reply; you made my day. I would love to connect with you. Can you please give me your email address or WhatsApp number? Have a nice day and stay safe!

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